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How to lead ‘Clevers’ – What aspects of existing leadership and HR orthodoxy actually make a difference?

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, both from the London Business School, have written four books together, including Why should anyone be led by you? I recently heard Goffee speak at a Leading Edge Forum event in London. What a speaker he is, and what a great message he has! 

How to lead Clevers

The ‘clevers’ are turning the world upside down.

Goffee talked about how those entering the workforce today (‘millennials’) have high expectations of themselves and others, seek creative challenges and responsibility, want fast recognition, question traditional authority, are highly mobile and require better work-life balance than their predecessors. Within that cohort, Goffee has marked the rise of a group he calls the ‘clevers’ – smart, able people you want in your organization, with a particular attitude and approach:

  • Cleverness is central to their identity
  • Their skills are not easily replicated and they know their worth
  • They ask difficult questions
  • They are organizationally savvy and are not impressed by hierarchy
  • They expect instant access and are well connected
  • They have a low boredom threshold
  • They won’t thank you

Goffee says this is bad news for leaders. The ‘clevers’ are turning the world upside down. We can no longer be content with making individuals more valuable to our organizations through motivation and engagement. Instead, we must make our organizations more valuable to individuals who are already valuable.

He tells us we need to become more authentic leaders, by practicing sensing, being close to individuals but distant enough to be able to make difficult decisions, accepting differences in ourselves, focusing dissatisfaction with the status quo and communicating with care. In other words, by building sociability and solidarity.

Goffee’s talk made me reflect on this challenge. I agree that it’s up to the leaders to create an organizational climate that enables employee engagement. High employee engagement leads to increased effort, which in turn improves organizational performance. The right climate is one in which employees sense they are supported by first-line management, understand what is expected of them and the place they work in, feel part of something greater and able to connect their personal work to the greater good, are recognized for their contribution, able to express themselves, and feel that their job is challenging. Immediate managers have the largest impact on creating such a climate – by building solidarity and sociability, using the techniques listed in the table below.

To build solidarity

  • Develop competitor awareness
  • Create a sense of urgency
  • Gain commitment to objectives, targets, etc.
  • Stimulate the will to win
  • Set demanding standards
  • Address poor performance
  • Move people around
  • Celebrate success

To build sociability

  • Increase social interaction
  • Reduce formality
  • Limit hierarchical differences
  • Recruit compatible people
  • Take care of those in trouble
  • Encourage sharing of ideas, emotions, interests 

Goffee’s talk made me reflect on this challenge, and how leaders I have known in a long career in IT addressed it – including myself.  It is clear to me that the things I did well built solidarity and sociability, and where I was found wanting I eroded it.

Read the full account of how different organizations have managed to build solidarity and sociability using these techniques in a longer version of this blog via the top right DOWNLOADS section.

Goffee and Jones first published the concept of solidarity and sociability in the Harvard Business Review in 1996. You can find the paper using this link:



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Research Commentary

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